Firing Someone For Mental Illness Is An Outrage

by Bill Brenner on April 19, 2011

If someone does a lousy job at work, they deserve to be fired. If someone does the job well but is fired because they have a mental illness, that’s an outrage.

Mood music:

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This morning’s tirade brought to you by this comment posted on the LinkedIn NAMI group discussion board:

I lost my job as Director – Communications from a regional Chamber of Commerce after disclosing my 30 years of living and working with bipolar in Dec. 2009.

Now after trying to find another job, I applied for SSDI. I just got rejected with a letter saying,”The medical evidence in your file shows that your condition does cause restriction in your ability to function, however, while your condition prevents you from doing previous jobs, you still have the ability to do unskilled work.” 

I was diagnosed with bipolar in 1980, have bouts of depression, social anxiety, migraines, gerd and visable essential tremors in my hands and legs. I cannot stand unsupported for more than a few minutes and the tremors make me not want to leave my home and when I do anxiety worsens them. I can take medication to calm the tremors but those meds also negatively effect my memory, errors, and cognitive abilities. 

I know most people get rejected but I am almost 60 and have worked in public marketing communications at managerial levels since 1984. What should I do?

 I felt I needed to disclose as the work was socially demanding and my tremors showed.

I felt in disclosing that especially a Chamber of Commerce would be somewhat more understanding. Instead they became hostile and took away my startegic job duties and bumped me down to a typist.

Now, let’s start with some clarifications: If this person’s illness prevented them from doing their job, that does put the employer in a bind. I get that. If her condition has suddenly nosedived and it prevents her from doing what she used to do, that’s a tragedy.

The question I have is this: If someone loses their ability to do their job because of heart disease, a terrible injury or cancer, do they get dropped cold by their employer? Do they get treated in a hostile manner? Not from my experience.

I’ve known many people who developed a disease or got in an accident, and none lost their jobs. Their seat simply stayed empty and, in some cases, temps were brought in to do their work until they either recovered or resigned. They were treated with support.

If this woman did her job admirably for many years and just recently hit a period of intensified mental illness, she should be treated like the cancer or heart patient. To fire her because she’s “gone crazy” is, in my opinion, unacceptable.

It’s as insidious as, say, putting limits on coverage for mental health care.

These stories ratchet up the fear level for those suffering from depression, OCD, bipolar disorder and the like. It proves to the sufferer that mental illness is still viewed as a less-than-legitimate illness, something that’s more a figment of the sufferer’s imagination.

I’m not an expert. I can only base my opinion on personal experience. But I’ve heard enough horror stories from other people to know this crap is for real.

That’s exactly why I started this blog.

I chose to out myself and share my experiences so other sufferers might realize they are not freaks and that they have a legitimate, very easily explained medical problem that’s very treatable. It takes that kind of understanding for someone to get up and get help.

I try not to engage in political debate because this is such a personal issue, though sometimes I have to make a point on current events like I did when Health care Reform passed last year.

I do know this, though: Many good people have died because of mental illness. They were ashamed and afraid to get help because of the stupid notion that they are somehow crazy and either need their ass kicked or be institutionalized. So they try to go it alone and either end up committing suicide because their brains are knocked so far off their axis or they die from other diseases that develop when the depression forces the sufferer into excessive eating, drinking, starvation, drug taking or a combination of these things.

There’s also the ridiculous idea that a person’s workmanship becomes valueless when they’re in a depression. If someone misses work because they have cancer, they are off fighting a brave battle. They are fighting a brave battle, of course. No doubt about it.

But depression? That person is slacking off and no longer performing.

I’ve been able to debunk that idea in my own work circle. It helps that I’ve been blessed to work with exceptional, amazing and enlightened people. At work, I’ve gotten nothing but support. I do my job well, and that’s good enough for them. That’s how it should be.

Luckily for me, I got rid of my fear and anxiety long ago, so I’m going to keep sharing my experiences. It probably won’t force change  or tear down the stigma single-handedly.

But if a few more people get just a little more fight in them after reading these diaries, it will have been well worth the risks.

As for what the woman above can do about her situation, the folks in the LinkedIn forum offered some good advice. The best, in my opinion, came from mental health advocate Bonnie Neighbour:

You have two possible areas of recourse. You can sue for unlawful termination. I am not referring to that choice with the rest of this comment. 

Or you can appeal the SSDI denial. Something people need to k ow that is not commonly talked about is that, in deciding on your application for SSDI. the Social Security Dept. will only request records from your doctors, etc. one time. If the applicable records are not submitted within the time frame (and it’s wires short) the Social Security Dept. Decides upon (and they most likely will not tell you the time frame but it’s a matter of weeks) they will automatically deny the claim. You can appeal and get the appropriate records submitted for the appeal. Thus is one reason so many people are denied. 

For those who have not applied for SSDI but who may in the future, the prudent thing to do is collect all your records before you begin the application process and submit them all at once. If you depend on hour doctors’ offices to respond the a request by the Social Security Dept., the likelihood of receiving a denial based on incomplete records is huge. And you will most likely never know why. 

Good luck. 

A third option for you is to find your passion and start doing it — even if it’s volunteer only. For it is by living a fulfilling and passionate life that we stay healthy and can find and maintain mental health recovery.

You can pursue option three while considering option one or two.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Meridith April 19, 2011 at 3:15 am

I definitely recommend that the woman who got fired for her mental illness file an EEOC claim. It seems very clear that she got fired because of her mental illness, since she was terminated not long after she disclosed her bipolar disorder. Seems like it would be a relatively easy case to prove.

Christine April 19, 2011 at 3:47 am

I second the “sue the pants off them” approach. I don’t know what jurisdiction she’s in, but she should be able to sue for unlawful termination under the ADA. As long as there were reasonable accommodations that could be made for her, there is no reason why they should have fired her. I say sue ’em and let them pay for her early retirement, and don’t forget to tack on intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress to the discrimination claim.

Joanna April 20, 2011 at 11:10 am

Without knowing the details of the termination of the subject of the story, I can only speculate that because she disclosed she worked for a Chamber of Commerce, that is probably a small organization and as such, may not be required to follow EEO requirements. Employers with 20 or more employers are subject to GINA, ADA and Title VII; employers with 15 or more employees are subject to ADEA. Can she try to bring suit? Anyone can, I would guess, but she may not have protection under the law, unfortunately. I don’t agree with it, I’m just stating what the facts are, coming from an HR perspective as well as someone with mental illness. I also want to clarify that this should not be construed as any kind of legal advice and I am not an attorney. I would also second the input on filing for SSDI. Applicants must go in prepared, with full documentation, and if turned down, appeal, appeal, appeal.

Michael April 21, 2011 at 9:31 am

Remember how to play leapfrog? I was the executive director of a small non-profit organization when stress over finances started me on a downward spiral into depression. As a consequence, I started to fall down in job performance, which added to the stress and … you know the rest.

At one point, I went to the chair of the organization’s board of directors and told her that I was in a depression. That was just before Christmas and by the middle of January, she had the rest of the board convinced that I should be let go.

I probably should have fought back but a depression is a lousy starting point from which to rally a defense.

So here is what I learned from this teachable moment: line up your defenses ahead of time, when things are going well. If there is a human resources department, inquire about an employee assistance program (EAP). If the employer doesn’t offer an EAP talk with a human resources person anyway. Get it on record that the employer knows your situation.

Talk with an employment law specialist, even if you have to pay for the billable hour. Seek out a sympathetic listener inside the organization with whom you can confide.

And always, be considering not only another job but the notion of a career change.

Dwayne Melancon August 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm

This is a shame. Mental health issues are far too misunderstood – and mis-handled – in our system. Kicking people to the curb out of inconvenience, fear, and/or discomfort helps no one.

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